Letting It Bleed 

How Big Media is devouring itself in the era of post-colonialism.

When writing about the death of daily newspapers, daily newspapers usually like to blame things like the Internet, increasing aliteracy, and a loss of advertising resulting from the latest economic downturn.

The complaints aren't entirely without merit but are generally stated in a way suggesting that America's media giants are merely the victims of terrible external forces, not their own horrible business decisions. Accusing the Internet of pulpicide, though, is a little like giving barbarian invaders full credit for the fall of the Roman Empire.

In the under-regulated communications industry of the post-1980s, gigantic media companies took sovereignty over newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations all across the country and treated them like colonies to be exploited. When greater profits were needed to expand the empire, the colonies were squeezed. More and more content was made with cheap syndicated materials. When that wasn't enough to keep expanding profit margins, the companies took out loans.

Even newspaper chains that have consistently posted healthy operating profits have frozen pensions and laid off staff, while the managerial staff yelps about how difficult things are for newspapers.

It's true, of course, that daily newspaper circulation has been declining for decades and that imploding real estate and automotive markets have delivered a terrible blow. But the primary reason why so many media companies are flailing like speared fish — at a time when the market for useful and informed content is expanding at an incredible rate — is directly related to imperial overreach and crushing debt.

According to an article in a recent edition of Advertising Age, the McClatchy Company, a leading newspaper and Internet publisher, posted a 21 percent operating profit in 2008 but began slashing jobs and benefits across the board in order to manage nearly $2 billion in debt from its top-dollar purchase of the Knight Ridder news service.

Once you get beyond the greed and gluttony, there's a really ugly side to colonialism: a pervasive belief among colonizers that the universe has rewarded their moral, physical, and intellectual superiority with the gift of total domination. This is the imperative behind the continuing American belief in Manifest Destiny, the worldwide tradition of subjugating non-European populations, and modern theories of supply-side economics and corporate welfare. Our corporations conquered a newly devalued world. Our corporate elites have become our nobility, entitled in the truest sense of the word. This is every bit as true in the world of big media as it is in the world of banking and finance.

Newspapers aren't the only media putting out fires in a crumbling empire. Radio has also extended itself beyond sustainability, becoming less local in the process. Syndication poster-boy Rush Limbaugh's recent campaign against "the fairness doctrine" — a doctrine, incidentally, that nobody is trying to reinstate — was a thinly veiled campaign against increased competition and local ownership.

Limbaugh and the giant radio conglomerates he represents aren't as easy to sympathize with as daily newspapers. As badly as they have been exploited, most of our newspapers still have deep roots in their communities. But now the biggest newspapers in Tennessee are sharing content to maximize financial resources. And representatives of America's biggest newspaper chains are meeting with attorneys to figure out how they can test the boundaries of antitrust laws.

The newspaper industry's "failing business model" is repeatedly blamed for all the sturm, drang, and fire-sale transactions. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that local newspapers can turn a profit. Newspaper owners, on the other hand, are often leveraged to the point that turning a profit just isn't good enough anymore.

Times are tough for advertising-supported media, because times are tough all over. The digital barbarians are howling at the gate, and at the moment there's nothing on the horizon to look forward to but the infinite aftermath of postcolonial reconstruction. Chris Davis is a Flyer staff writer and proprietor of the blog the Flypaper Theory.

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